Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Gender Identity Crisis


One of the themes of my dissertation research is gender politics. Because of this, I've been internally comparing the stuff that I'm dancing with lately to American society. Of course, there's a knee-jerk instinct to categorically declare that American women are freer and life is better for us here...you know, because we we're on the side of "the good"....and we believe in Jesus...and we are "the people"...and stuff like that...even if the "the people" meant a bunch of land-owning white guys for a long time, but we're past that now...because if we've got "strategery".

But, no, really, in all seriousness, if you are socially constructed to see it this way, then there are some clear advantages to being an American woman. As I've told my classrooms of young women, we are all success stories of the American feminist movements. For example, I'm living the dream that my mother envisioned for me in the late 1970's, when she imagined a world where women didn't have to be secretaries or housewives at the age of 19. I was the only girl in the neighborhood who didn't own a single Barbie doll. Ever. I was too busy reading Dickens, tearing apart my father's lawnmower and putting it together again, and doing "science experiments" on frogs and caterpillars with Bro.

On top of my mother's shoulders, I'm on my way to earning the elusive Ph.D. that my grandmother once told me (when I was 8) that she was thwarted from doing when she was pressured to marry my "that bastard", otherwise known as my grandfather. In her final moments of senility, this is the same woman who screamed at all of us, "If you love your girls, don't educate them. You show them the world, then you put them in a cage for the rest of their lives." Yeah, that was kind of, like, traumatic...

The thing is, while there are clear, definable successes of the American women's movement, I've been wondering about the many wonderful qualities intrinsic to women that were left behind in the long-overdue, marathon dash to break through glass ceilings. Here, my argument is not that women are "naturally" better caretakers than men, but I do think that a great number of women from my mother's generation tend to struggle with their sense of identity. They came of age in an era of bra-burning and unhindered sexual relations, but were later forced to "prove themselves" by harnessing these energies into bad suits with boxy shoulder pads. Here, the corporatized "super woman" saga came into vogue, and suddenly women were saying that they could "have it all". But do we have it all at the expense of not being women? Are we all just "iron ladies" in waiting, replacing our feminine identity with something that just isn't...us?

Among the number of things I cherish about having been born with a vagina, I love being the kind of woman who has on-going internal discussion with my instincts. Some may call it my own adaptation of "social survival skills", but I have an organic ability to sense things without words while constructively steering situations towards an agreeable end. I also tend to operate under the assumption everything can be made better with a hug. Call it unprofessional, but I hug people all of the time. Doesn't a hug make everything better? I mean, at the end of the day, aren't we all just social animals? Studies show that human touch lowers blood pressure, and cortisol levels, makes old people live longer, and even saves little orphaned babies. I use the word "love" a lot too. The ironic thing is I didn't learn this from the female role models in my life. If anything, I was taught that if I wanted to be taken "seriously", I needed to adjust my behavior to "act more like a man." Honestly, I happen to think that there is a fine line between loving men and wanting to be one. I happen to prefer the former.

In light of my recent break with my last dissertation advisor, who happened to be a woman, I've been forced to really think about the significance of female mentorship in my line of work. On one hand, I have huge shoes to fill of incredible women with incredible minds. On the other hand, I'm sorry to say, I see myself doing this in hugs and heels. This is not to diminish the hard work of those before me, but to now fill the space they've left for me with something more than an embrace of the masculine aesthetic. I feel the need to often remind my female students that we are standing on the tremendous shoulders of women before us. But I also gently remind my male students that "Men can be feminists, too", because feminism is humanism, with the interest of human equality for all. But in doing this, I think it's fair to say that I'm a part of a generation of women who can now resolve the identity crisis that we inherited from our mothers. We may or may not be able to "have it all", but don't need to butcher the best part of our human qualities for the mere price of simply getting ahead.

I, for one, feel much further along, if not more well-balanced as a woman. And, thanks very much, I even wear pink shirts sometimes with my flattering female-suits.
The End.

2 comments:

Mujer Morena said...

The beauty of being a woman in our time is that we don't have to fall into any specific gender role. I enjoy that, not only as a woman, but of a woman of color, I can create my own identity. I occasionally face some opposition in regards to this attitudes, and that's unfortunate. For them.

Keep it up, chica. You can proudly stand on the shoulders of the women before you, and do it in your own way.

FSOgirl said...

Great post. Oddly timed, too. This week in our Czech area studies class, we had a lecture on gender studies and had a Czech PhD talk about the role of women in modern Czech society. She had done a study that asked people what a 26-year-old woman should do if she had recently been offered a promotion at work and then found out she was pregnant. The study asked men and women and differentiated between generations. Interestingly, among women, advice was split almost 30-30-30 between having the baby and then going right back to work, having the baby and taking two years from work, and having the baby and staying home. The other 10 percent would advise her not to have the baby. The Czech researcher said the answers gave her faith in the newest generation of Czech women, who did not grow up under communism, and who -- it appeared from this study -- believe they have many choices about how to live their lives. In my job I struggle too with the idea that to get ahead will likely mean significantly delaying marriage and kids or worrying how I can have it all. Or will it not be as hard as I think? Being a woman is an adventure in itself, and I too am glad to have so many options these days. I am thankful to those bra-burning women who came before and also glad to not be one of them!